Chapter 22: Exhale
With load-shedding turning most streets dark and fathomless in the fading twilight, and my awful sense of direction, I ended up on the outskirts of Karachi before I realised it. I had been mindlessly following a motorcycle; a small family was squeezed onto the single seat, a woman perched on the back clutching a toddler in one arm and holding onto the waist of the man in front. I spotted a sign for the beach, and headed in that direction instead. I now understood why Hassan liked driving fast sometimes; there was a certain adrenaline rush to letting go of boundaries and speed limits. Of course, I wasn't very careful if I was driving recklessly and was pretty sure there were at least two scratches on the car by now. Hassan would probably never forgive me for wrecking his car, so I finally slowed down.
I had to laugh mirthlessly at that, because he was the one who had to be forgiven, not the other way around. My laughter was short-lived though. Despite telling myself I had no place feeling hurt because of his confession, I couldn't help thinking; why was it so easy for him to be with somebody else? When he had been the only one I could ever think of romantically in the last couple of years? How come he had preferred somebody else before? And how could he replace me so easily?
I should be glad he had told me himself, as opposed to finding out the truth from other people again. I did appreciate that he had made an effort, considering how uncomfortable the subject had made him. At least now I knew what had been going through his mind, all those times I couldn't figure him out.
As soon as I got out of the car, I realised it was a stupid time to visit the beach. I hadn't brought a phone so I couldn't tell how long I had been out. The sky was dark though, I could barely make out the waves hitting the shore below. One of Hassan's hoodies was strewn across the backseat so I grabbed it. Leaving the apartment with only keys and shoes had been foolish idea but I was in no mood to go back as yet. The car beeped once as I locked it, and headed to the stairs. It was a weekend so the beach was crowded by all sorts of people. There was a tantalising smell of fish frying coming from the right, but I didn't have any money on me. Slightly self-conscious as I was too dressed up for the beach, I pulled on the hoodie.
It smelled of Hassan, even though I had used it more often than him recently. He usually left it in the car for me as I was prone to forgetting to bring a shawl when we went out, and my dresses weren't warm enough when the temperature dropped at night. It was little thoughtful things like that, that made me pause and believe there was hope for us yet.
I wandered over to the edge of the beach, where gentle waves were ebbing and flowing onto the sand. I had only visited this place a handful of times before, and only once with Hassan before our marriage, but everything reminded me of him. So much for escaping him for a while, he was still consuming my every thought.
It was a humid, sweltering hot summer's day, as was to be expected in the middle of May in Karachi. Music was drifting along with the waves, while I stood watching the party get underway from the sidelines. The smell of seafood being cooked wafted towards me, and my stomach rumbled.
I scuffed at the sand with my left foot, only succeeding in getting sand all over my flip-flops. I had been too nervous to call Hassan to invite him to the end-of-exams beach party, so I'd taken the easy way out and texted instead. I hadn't met my fiancé since our engagement and we barely spoke on the phone either. The other day, after listening to one of my friends gush over her boyfriend and a recent date, I couldn't help but feel envious. Hassan had made no effort to get to know me better since I'd been back in Karachi, which struck me as odd. I had finally pushed my shyness aside and decided to make the first move.
Almost giddy with anticipation, I positioned myself so I could spot Hassan coming up from the parking lot next to the stairs. I'd planned a list of dialogue to keep me going through the night but when he appeared a minute later as I bent over awkwardly to get rid of the sand on my foot, everything slipped from my mind.
He had clearly just come from work, dressed in a blue shirt with sleeves rolled up til his forearms and trousers, a contrast to the rest of the guys mostly roaming around in T-shirts and Bermuda shorts. I'd had pictures to remind me so it was highly unlikely I would forget his face, but I had forgotten the way my insides somersaulted and the sudden weakness in my knees whenever I was near him.
He hadn't yet seen me, his eyes searching over the huge crowd of my classmates. He stopped around the corner from me. I raised my hand and waved awkwardly, to gather his attention. He kept looking in the opposite direction, so I started walking over to him.
Suddenly, a rush of people obscured my view of Hassan. As the people moved away, I was surprised to see Hassan chatting with a group of fourth-years. I only knew these seniors by face, the girls weren't the sort I usually hung out with and the guys I had been warned about by friends. Wondering how Hassan knew them, I was about to go over and greet him when I saw one of the girls draw him off to one side.
There was something vaguely familiar about seeing the two of them together, it felt almost like déjà vu. They inadvertently stopped within my hearing range, as I contemplated making my presence known. However, I was so shocked by their conversation that I forgot to do anything.
'What are you doing?!' Hassan was looking around guiltily, as he shrugged the girl's hand off. One of my friends, Nizam, had drifted over to talk to two girls, junior to us, and his back blocked Hassan's view of me. 'You know why I'm here, please don't do anything stupid, okay?'
'Yeah, I know you're not here for me, you've made that abundantly clear!' From my side view of her, I saw her pouting prettily. I made a gagging noise and Nizam frowned at me. I gestured to him to carry on and hid behind him again.
'Amber, yaar, behave!'
'This is stupid, why don't you break off the engagement? You don't even like her.'
'I do like her-' At Amber's gasp of outrage, he stopped and said soothingly. 'Not in that way, not like you and me, just...I can't break it off, and I've told you why. I just need you to behave for one day, can't you do that for me?'
'Fine, but I don't like being ignored. And I don't get why you had to agree to come when she invited you. And you never came to the events when I wanted you to this year.'
'I couldn't come then, I shouldn't even be talking to you right now. Did you really expect us to flaunt our relationship in front of her? I might not feel about her the same way I do about you but I do respect her. I've been ignoring her for months, she's my fiancée, and it would have seemed really strange if I didn't come when she asked.'
'I've been your girlfriend longer than you've known her! I don't like this pretense, Hassan. Just tell her the truth about us.' I could tell from their body language how comfortable they were with each other; he was leaning in to talk to her, the way she was tilting her head back to look up at him, mirroring the other's stance, and the besotted expression on Hassan's face. They fit so perfectly together, somehow I felt guilty for eavesdropping!
'I'll make it up to you, I promise. Tomorrow, is all yours, we'll even go to that new shisha place.'
Right, I'd heard enough. I needed some time to digest the fact that my fiancé had a girlfriend. 'Nizam, I'm hungry!' I whispered.
'Toh mai kya karun?' Even as he spoke, he was indicating with exaggerated signals that I go away and leave him to hit on the juniors in peace.
'Please, na! Paisay nahin hain!'
'Ugh, acha, chalo magar jaldi wapas ana!' He was my study buddy and also a big softie. The number of times we'd paid for the other person after studying sessions at the library, since one of us was always short on money, were countless.
I convinced the girls Nizam was giving everyone a treat, so they came along as well. I didn't see Hassan for half an hour or so, Nizam took pity on me and tried to include me in the conversation, but my mind was elsewhere. I got up to leave after I finished my portion of the fish, when Manahil, another friend, sitting beside him asked, 'Hey Rey, when's your fiance getting here? I really wanted to meet him.'
In hindsight, it probably hadn't been a good idea to announce to all my friends that Hassan would be coming today. They hadn't been able to make it to the engagement because it had been in Peshawar and they were quite irritating when they started hounding me for details. Especially since I had run out of things to tell them about Hassan, considering we had barely talked since the engagement.
'Uh-' I floundered. Manahil was looking at me expectantly, because I clearly wasn't as excited as I usually was when the topic of Hassan arose.
Nizam handed me the half empty can of Pepsi I'd left on the table. 'Manny, tang na kar yaar. Rey, fikar not, and we'll meet your guy whenever he shows up.'
I mouthed 'thanks' to him and walked over to the waves. I was swilling the Pepsi and kicking aimlessly as the water hit my ankles. I had rolled my jeans up to mid-calf but water had dampened most of my jeans anyway, my flip-flops were squelching in the sand and I was enjoying the thumping beat of the music that had been switched on again once the azaan ended, when I heard someone say my name behind me.
I looked over my shoulder, and Hassan was a few feet behind me.
He lifted a hand in a half-wave. I turned around and walked over to him. Despite what I'd witnessed earlier, my heart was aflutter. I couldn't seem to control my body's reaction towards him.
'Hi!' I could not believe how high-pitched my voice had become.
'As-salaam-alaikum, Reyna.' He stopped a respectable distance away. That stung a little, that he was comfortable with Amber, but what little chemistry we did have before was forgotten. All I got was a stiff smile.
I said Wasalaam nervously, not sure how to proceed. 'So...I'm glad you came, I didn't know if you would.'
'I replied and told you I would,' he said, uncertainly.
'Well, this is awkward,' I said frankly. There was a pause, he finally looked right at me. 'And I just made it worse by stating the obvious, didn't I?'
There was the hint of possibility in his grin, all was not lost.
I stepped out of my flip-flops, and bent down to pick them up. 'So, did you come straight from work?'
'Yeah...' Well, he certainly wasn't making this any easier for me.
As we strolled along the shore, I proceeded to engage him in conversation with every possible inane subject that came to mind; work, Turan, his family, Sara, funny stories from my classes, and books by authors I remembered we'd both liked. Slowly, his demeanour began to thaw and he even laughed at some of the more silly stories.
'...do you want something to eat? Or drink?' I rambled on, gesturing with my now empty can.
He shook his head, 'Maybe later.'
'It's so pretty now.' I gazed at the horizon wistfully, wishing I could capture this moment, just the two of us, and relive it into infinity; Talking and laughing with Hassan, the feeling of wet sand squished between my toes, the sun's dying rays and hopefully, no Amber lurking in his thoughts.
'Hey, you haven't met my friends yet! I wanted to introduce you to everyone.' I changed direction and searched among the crowd. Hassan followed me once I saw my friends gathered near the bonfire, and I had to admit, he was a great accessory to have. They all 'ooh'ed and 'aah'ed over him, and bugged him almost as much as they had annoyed me, and the guys gave him the stamp of approval once he took all the ribbing good-naturedly.
We hung out with my friends for a couple of hours, once I realised Hassan was more relaxed around them. He didn't mention how he knew Amber or her friends, even when some of the guys from her year joined our circle around the bonfire and I let it slide. Of Amber herself, there was no sign.
It was dark by the time Hassan looked at his watch, so after many loud-goodbyes we drifted over to the stairs. The party was still going strong, I knew it would go on for a while yet, and continue at the uni campus afterwards as well but I wasn't really in the mood anymore.
I walked beside Hassan, up the stairs to the car park. 'Hey, you don't have to escort me to the car. Go back to your friends,' he said.
'It's okay, I don't mind,' I smiled. 'Thank you for coming, Hassan. I know you were busy and-'
'I had fun, your friends are-'
'They're weird, I know.'
'No, not weird, just kind of crazy. I forgot how much fun college parties used to be.'
'Oh, come now, you're talking like it was a lifetime ago for you.'
'Well, it was what, three years ago?'
'Hardly makes you old though. Anyway, yeah, sorry if they were a bit out of control. Everyone's coming down from a high of too much caffeine, and probably other drugs, and barely any sleep.'
He halted beside a car, which I assumed was his, and said, 'Yeah, no offence but you look exhausted, you should get some rest.'
'Probably left-over stress, I'm still convinced I'm flunking Patho.'
'Don't stress, what's done is done. You're smart, I'm sure you'll do great inshALLAH!'
He had already gone around the car and unlocked the door on the driver's side. His actions and words both seemed like the prologue to a goodbye.
'Thanks...' I hesitated before asking, 'Do you think you could drop me off at uni?'
Hassan seemed a bit taken aback I had invited myself along. 'Uh, yeah sure.'
I was beginning to think this wasn't such a good idea, he clearly didn't want me around and here I was imposing myself on him further. 'I'm sorry, it's probably out of your way, I just don't want to party anymore, and these things go on forever.'
He had already gotten in, and leaned over to unlock the passenger door. 'No, it's fine, get in.'
'Okay then, if you're sure you don't mind?'
'Reyna, it's really not a problem.' Another polite smile. The sight of it made me inexplicably angry. I wanted his adorable grin back, the one with a hint of a dimple and the promise of mischief.
He had the car started and running even before I could shut the car door properly. I had put my shoes back on earlier, when I'd caught Hassan staring at my feet and I'd realised how dirty they'd become. Amber was always so put-together and graceful. I'm sure she would probably never walk barefoot on an impulse and get all raggedly dirty. My kurta shirt was creased, my jeans already had grass stains on one knee from playing cricket with the boys in the campus earlier, and the sea breeze had made my hair more frizzy than usual. I wasn't going to convince him that he should rather be with me, by behaving or looking like I was presently.
Finding out Hassan had a girlfriend had been painful. I had thought he felt the same way about me that I did about him. Now I was just confused. What was he doing being engaged to me, if he had been in a relationship with someone else before we met? And was still with her? Surely, he had to like me just a little to agree to marry me. I hadn't imagined the flirting and the banter, had I? Had I been over-reacting? Why couldn't I just pretend I hadn't overheard their conversation and none of this had ever happened? It was easy to be normal around Hassan, even though he himself had been so ill at ease around me today.
As the last stages of denial wore off, I decided I should do what Amber would in my position. Someone who looked like she did, would not sit idly by while her fiancé blatantly preferred another girl's company.
Hassan did not ask for directions and I did not supply them. All the effort I'd made earlier to make him comfortable in my presence had been futile; he had become tense as soon as I'd asked him to drop me off. I saw a CD cover poking out, and began asking him about his favourite music.
He warmed up to that subject, even put one of his favourite songs on play, but clammed up when I said, 'Oh, and how many songs can you play on your guitar? I know it's stupid but I have this list of songs...if anyone played me those or even better, sang to me, I'd just melt.'
The track on the CD switched, and there was a sudden silence in the car.
Looking straight ahead, Hassan stopped the car a little distance away from the side gate to AKU. Realising I barely had time to make amends, I said hastily, 'Shit, I'm sorry! I really need to watch what I say sometimes. No pressure, I mean I don't expect you to sing to me-'
But amazingly enough, Hassan was laughing. It was dark where we were parked, hardly anyone used this entrance and the streetlamp had sputtered its last years ago, but his grin was visible in the shadows.
Without thinking, I grabbed the opportunity and leaned in. The sound of his laughter died away as he saw me lunging with wide eyes. Our noses bumped, and he barely got out a shocked 'Reyna!' before I full on kissed him.
I obviously wasn't very successful at distracting him, or any good in the kissing department either. Hassan wasn't suddenly overcome by lust, but I had hoped he would at least reciprocate. Out of the two of us, at least he knew how to go about it. It had been impetuous and unwise on my part but I had hoped that would be all the incentive he would require. He was supposed to know what to do after that.
To my dismay, after several awkward seconds, he pushed me away. I landed back in my seat.
'What was that?' he said, in a shaking voice. I almost expected him to wipe a hand across his lips to erase the stupid incident.
I was mortified. This wasn't the movies, I couldn't convince a guy I was the one he should want by kissing him! Me, who had never kissed anyone in my life, was making advances on my fiance. The world had spun out of control.
'I am so sorry.' I scrabbled at the lock behind me and managed to get the door open. I all but fell out of the car, apologising profusely, 'I-I am clearly not in my right mind, and sleep deprived, yes that's got to be it. That never happened!'
'Reyna!' He got out on the other side. I half ran to the gate but he blocked my way before I reached it. 'What has come over you? I didn't think you'd be the sort who even went on dates, even if we're engaged. And this, whatever this was!'
All he knew was that my family was more conservative than his. I never said I'd be opposed to meeting him after the engagement. It seemed to me he chose to believe that to ease his own conscious.
'No, I never gave you that impression.' How much clearer did he want me to be? What else was I supposed to do to garner his attention? 'But what happened just now, forget about it.'
I hurried over to the gate, and this time he didn't try to stop me.
I began to notice Amber around campus more often after that. She had probably been around, in the periphery, all this time I'd been a student at AKU. But I never noticed her before. From that day forward though, it seemed I saw her everywhere I went.
Hassan had called plenty of times the week after the beach party, mostly to apologise for his reaction. We talked, (I even plucked up enough courage to ask him about Amber once) but just when I felt like we were making some progress, the calls had slowly dwindled away until it had been months since we last spoke.
Doubts slowly began creeping in; I expected to receive word that Hassan wanted to break up with me any day now. That day never came. Instead, over the year I heard rumours about Amber and him, rumours I was pretty sure she had perpetuated herself. Elated that he had instead called it off with her, I had been sure he would start behaving like my fiancé for a change.
Thinking back to that incident years ago, it was even more apparent how foolishly hopeful I'd been. Hassan had not changed, and I had forgiven him for what I assumed was a lapse in judgement. I understood, we were only engaged, not married yet and presumably he came to a decision, one that had meant committing to a relationship with me instead. However, I had also assumed the week of his brother's wedding that we had ended up spending together, and our engagement had meant something to him.
If it hadn't been for what Maria had inadvertently let slip, I would have gone on believing in us. That conversation two weeks after our nikkah had forced me to open my eyes and make some hard decisions.
One of Maria's aunts lived in Peshawar, and she had decided to visit her family for a couple of weeks. The rest of Hassan's family, now technically my family too, had already left days after the nikkah. One day, Maria came over for some chai and gupshup.
I had taken almost a month's leave from university, starting from the nikkah til the wedding. Chotti Eid would give me an additional week off, for our honeymoon. I had been stressing about missing all the lectures and falling behind, and it seemed like the wedding preparation was never ending. When Maria invited herself over that afternoon, it had seemed like a good idea at the time, to sit down for a few minutes and have a much-needed breather from all the chaos.
The majority of my friends were girls, and I was close to a lot of them. But having grown up with two brothers, suddenly having three sisters took some getting used to. I was glad we got along when she came over, gradually the formality had worn off and Maria started opening up to me.
An hour into her visit, while the tea grew cold because we had been caught up in talking, Maria said, 'You know, ever since I married Shay, I've been hoping Hassan would find a nice girl to settle down with. I never liked that girl, what was her na-?' She broke off, realising who she was talking to.
'Amber?' I supplied.
Relief washed over her face, clearly glad she hadn't revealed anything. It seemed everyone had known about Amber except me. I tried not to think about her often, as Hassan had broken up with her less than a month after I'd found out. Why did it matter so much to his bhabhi that he used to go out with Amber though? If he had really liked her, surely he would have stayed with her.
'Yes, that Amber girl. To be honest, I'm kind of surprised you already knew. And that you've kept calm all through this. If it was Shay, I don't think I'd have agreed to marry him.'
I picked up a chicken patty to nibble on, and saved myself from answering. I almost choked on the bite I'd taken though, as Maria went on, 'Well, I'm glad you and Hassan have managed to work past that. And that he has finally come to his senses. He has a responsibility towards you, and it was positively maddening that he chose to ignore it until last week.'
Last week? The nikkah had been ten days ago, I didn't know that anything major had happened since.
'You know how boys are though, he just needed to get her out of his system. All that talk about not wanting to get married, and how he already had a girlfriend, eventually came to nothing. Of course, Auntie Lena was at her wits end. She didn't know what to do with him. I guess we're all grateful she pressured him into marrying you, Hassan more than anyone. Though he didn't realise it until very recently, it was getting rather ridiculous. Shay gave him a good few lectures, that he couldn't have both a wife and a girlfriend.'
'That's why Hassan left so soon after the nikkah?' I tried to make my voice as nonchalant as possible. I was seething inside. How dare he? I thought Amber was in the past, and something had been going on until recently.
'Hmm?' She picked up her tea cup, and took a sip. 'Yes, to finally end things with her. You did know this, right?'
'I knew about Amber, yes,' I said distastefully, hedging the truth slightly. I didn't want her to feel it was her fault when I called it off with Hassan. 'Here, your tea's probably gotten cold. Let me pour you another...'
The simple task of pouring another cup of tea from the kettle proved too much for me. My hands were starting to shake. Thankfully, Maria decided she didn't want more tea anyway. So I drew my hands back and clenched them into fists, trying to keep my emotions at bay.
'Boys tend to have flings, they have their 'time pass', but you know they'll always marry the girl their mother chooses,' Maria was telling me sagely. As if she would know, she had fallen in love and married the man who loved her back. I was the moron who had thought my fiancé-oh no, now he was my husband- actually wanted me. That he had decided to be faithful and if he had had a girlfriend before, she had been history for well over a year. Turns out, all it had ever been was a lie spun from many romantic dreams. And a desire to fulfil his parents' wishes.
I was nothing more than a responsibility, a duty, to him.
I couldn't marry a man who thought so little of me.
If he wanted to be with someone else, he should be. I was not going to stand in their way and I certainly didn't deserve to be treated like this. How dare he let me sign the nikkah papers, all the while having another girl waiting in the sidelines?
I looked up, feeling dazed. Maria had gone out of focus, I had to blink a few times to see her clearly again.
'You okay? You zoned out on me...'
'Yeah, no, it's just the wedding prep getting to me.'
'Ah, I remember those days. It's the same in our house, well you'd know how it is actually, you were there for my wedding. I didn't actually know Auntie Lena was looking for a girl for Hassan around that time, I was so caught up in my own stuff at the time. It was later when they were coming for your rishta that I found out.'
'Yeah, I hadn't seen Sara in so long, I just needed an excuse really. And a break from uni...so I ended up spending the week at Hassan's,' I explained, wondering where she was going with this.
'Aw, it must have been strange realising you were being 'interviewed' for a place in the family too, then?'
'I'm sorry, interviewed?' I was lost. Must have been the shock, nothing she was saying was making sense.
'Oh, is it not the correct term? Well, you know, being looked over as a potential rishta. I guess Sara had been talking quiet enthusiastically about you all that time and gave my mother-in-law ideas. She was quiet adamant nobody else would do for her precious Hassan.'
I don't know how I would have responded to that, if it hadn't been for my mother walking into the drawing room just then, laden with shopping bags. I used the interruption and her presence as an excuse to leave, telling Maria I had something important to do, much to my mother's confusion as she knew my itinerary better than I did. I knew I was going to receive a lecture later on rudely leaving before a guest, but I couldn't sit there any longer.
I left them chatting amiably away, and raced up the stairs to my room. There was no one upstairs, thank God, so I didn't have to explain why I suddenly burst into tears as soon I reached the upstairs landing.
The crying only lasted for minutes. I wasn't hurt as much as I was angry, furious at Hassan, at myself for being such an idiot where he was concerned.
The pain hit later, like an actual physical symptom, with razor-sharp claws cutting deep into my sanity. It grew even more frustrating as I couldn't localise where the hurt was coming from, or how to fix it. My emotions were all over the place for days. It took me couple of weeks to figure out what I wanted to do next, and the first step entailed going to Spain to visit my best friend.
Beneath an inky black sky, I walked back and forth near the shoreline, at a distance from the rest of the crowd. A couple, not quite holding hands but brushing fingers, completely absorbed in each other strayed across my path. Envy coursed through me. I veered away towards a more secluded spot, trying not to look at them. I reached a series of rocks, the only people nearby was a group of girls enjoying a picnic, but I couldn't hear them so it seemed as good place as any. I climbed the lowest rock, scrambled over the next one and sat down at the edge.
The sky was full of stars, I almost wished I was here under different circumstances, enjoying a night out with Hassan beside me. I just knew he'd say something silly, like 'Reyna, mai tumharay liyay taaray tor kar le aoon ga'.
Of course, he had probably also used lines like that on Amber.
I was still looking up, but suddenly I was blind to the stars shining down. It all seemed to rain down upon me, in a deluge of piercing words and memories, until I felt covered in thousands of invisible paper cuts. Each one separately was bearable, a mere twinge, but all of them together was a pain beyond comprehension. Remembering the words, the instances Hassan had lied, the times I had mistaken for something more, the moments I cherished and he'd thrown away as if they were weightless, insignificant, worthless. As if I was worthless.
Not that I was blameless. I had pretended for far too long, in the hopes it would be okay in the end. I had drawn the farce that was our relationship out, until it was stretched beyond fixing. Until it broke and I fled to escape the ruins.
When he'd followed me and the turmoil going on inside me had burst forth.
I remember asking him, 'You ever feel like you're making the biggest mistake of your life? I think you're making a huge mistake and you're going to regret it.'
Finally uttering the truth, since that beach party, 'You make me feel like I'm not good enough for anything. Especially, not you.'
'I never said anything of the sort!'
'You don't have to.' His actions, the way he was with Amber, had meant words had no weight in comparison.
'You have got to be kidding me.'
And Hassan, being Hassan, hadn't believed me. Or maybe he hadn't wanted to believe then he hadn't been treating me the way I'd deserved? It had taken him more than a year to see something I had known all along.
I should have fought for him, fought with him, forced him to choose.
I hadn't, instead I had been hopelessly naïve.
'You should know what kind of a guy I am by now, Rey.' But I hadn't known then. He still managed to take me by surprise sometimes.
Perhaps the biggest lie of all. 'Like I said, I met you.'
I drew my legs up and rested my head on one knee, veering between logic and emotion as more memories raced through my mind. I don't know when or why I began to cry, yet strangely my cheeks were wet and I couldn't seem to stop.
Even his family had helped convince me he was as infatuated as I had been. During the rishta talks, his sister, Laila had gone out of her way to tell me Hassan was insisting I say yes to his rishta myself. Maybe it wasn't meant to be romantic. I, gullible fool that I was, had of course taken it that way. He probably though I wouldn't agree to marry him and save him the trouble of finding a way out. None of it had gone the way either of us planned; Hassan hadn't become mine as I'd hoped simply because of an exchange of rings, and he had been stuck with a fiancée he didn't want.
Even the time we'd spoken of Shayyan and Maria, their problems had seemed to mirror our own.
'So are they splitting up?' I'd wanted to know.
'I don't think they would be able to live without each other, to be honest,' he had said.
'Despite everything?' I'd asked.
I could still recall word-for-word his response to a rushed avowal of love, 'You don't think you love somebody Rey. That's not how it works. You know, you know it's the real thing when you stop being selfish. And then it doesn't matter how scared or how unwilling you are to do something, you'd do it anyway. For this so-called love.' I doubted he realized his words had left such deep scars. Then again, if he had been hurting and lashed out in retaliation, was he really to blame?
'If nothing else, I just want you to understand. Understand all of it. I mean, youshouldunderstand. I shouldn't have to tell you. But I do miss you, you know?'
I didn't want to be alone any longer, slowly my thoughts were turning poisonous. I wanted to talk to someone. Faisal was a great listener. He had been out of touch for a while though, another secret Army mission we would only be told of when it was over. I sighed. It was times like this I missed my best friend. Sara would know exactly the right thing to say, whether I wanted to hear it or not. If I called her out of the blue even now, she wouldn't hesitate to help. I almost reached for my phone before realizing I hadn't brought it.
Disheartened, I knew I was kidding myself, the only person I really wanted to talk to was Hassan. It didn't matter what his feelings had been before, I knew how he felt now, and wasn't that more important?
Even the stars were twinkling derisively, it was my fault I had lost my best friend… was I going to lose my husband too?
'I never asked you to give up anything for me.'
'You have got to be the only one who doesn't realise when I'm lying.'
'You said I was patient, but I wasn't. Sometimes I just couldn't do the whole waiting thing, there were times I wished I'd never met you.' I finally understood what he'd meant. There had been several hints, but it had taken me until now to string the pieces together.
'I guess we bring out the worst in each other,' I had once told him.
'We could have brought out the best in each other. Why couldn't you have wanted me as much as I wanted you?'
Something had changed for him. The Hassan I knew, my Hassan, the man who I could so easily be myself with, him I was in no danger of losing. I couldn't let him go even if I wanted to, couldn't imagine not being married to him. I knew with what he'd proven by getting us back together, he couldn't let me go either. When had I become more than an obligation to him?
With a shaking smile, I lifted my eyes upwards. In all my fantasies, I couldn't have predicted we would get along so well. I understood him better than myself. The man I had fallen in love with initially, he was so much more than that. Beneath the flaws, in the end he was a man I was genuinely grateful to share my life with.
I knew him, just as I had known that day what his response to an impetuous proposal would be.
He had been astonished I hadn't argued with him the day after over the phone, 'You've got nothing to say?' I remembered thinking at the time, that I would save it for another day, when I could be sure nothing could break us.
Maybe that day had come.
I brushed the tears from my face, and sat there for a little while longer, contemplating.
It was late, when I reached home. I unlocked the apartment door, using Hassan's keys.
In my hurry to leave earlier, I hadn't bothered with my bag or keys. I shut the door behind me quietly, locked it again, and toed off my shoes.
Silence greeted me as I walked down the hallway, and into the kitchen. The lights were all off as well, so I assumed Hassan wasn't home. I was about to flip the switch for the living room lights, when I saw the muted glow of a table lamp.
Hassan was sprawled across the couch, eyes shut, one hand thrown up over his face, the other lying across his stomach. He had changed; into grey sweatpants, a white shirt that was riding up so I could see his bellybutton and the black fleece robe I'd bought for him along with a matching peach one for myself. I sighed, the confrontation would have to wait another day, and decided I needed a hot shower.
Barely two steps later, I turned around and marched over to the couch.
I aimed a kick at one of his legs hanging off the edge. 'You, Hassan Ahmed Shah, are such an asshole!'
'Wha-?' He lurched up into a sitting position immediately. His eyes were bloodshot, and staring at me. 'Reyna! You're back?'
'I told you I would be,' I said quietly. I wanted to kick him again, do some physical damage so he could understand how I felt inside. It was either that or sob until I didn't feel the pain. My lacrimal glands were strongly leaning in favour of the latter.
He rubbed a hand across his face drowsily. 'It's been hours, you could have at least taken your phone...I was worried. I had no idea where you were. There's been two shooting incidents since you left. Of course, there's the fact that you have absolutely no sense of direction. And I know you haven't been driving recently. What were you trying to accomplish?'
I laughed humourlessly. 'I wasn't trying anything, Hassan.'
'What's with the attitude? Does this mean you've decided to be angry?'
'I'm not angry about what you did while we were going to get a divorce. I forgive you for that.'
He straightened, and asked incredulously, 'Just like that, you forgive me?'
'Yes, because even though I couldn't even imagine being physical with anyone else, I was the one who broke things off. It was my fault. I have no right to be mad when I practically told you to do exactly that. But what you did before that...that hurt.' My throat was constricting painfully, I could barely get the words out.
Hassan was watching me intently. I folded my arms across my chest to ward off the sudden chill creeping up my spine. I felt cold on the inside, and ironically enough, I wanted a mug of hot chocolate and a hug from Hassan. Ironic that I wanted comfort from the husband who was causing me all this grief.
I backed away from him, and began walking in the direction of our bedroom. He staggered to his feet. 'Reyna, wait-'
I paused, looking him over. 'What's wrong?'
He followed me into the hallway. 'You won't sit and talk, or better yet listen... that is what's wrong.'
'No, what's wrong with you? You don't look well.' I knew his face better than my own, and he had certainly looked healthy enough when I'd left. When I reached out and felt the back of his hand and palm, his skin wasn't clammy.
'It's nothing...just effing food poisoning.' His expression told me I was making a big deal out of nothing.
I dropped his hand. 'From dinner? You were fine when you got home after work.'
'Yeah, probably. I blame the dry beef chilli.' His face paled as he spoke, but he tried to overcome the nausea at the thought of food. 'I'm fine, Reyna. Are you done doctoring me, so we can get back to our problems?'
'You're clearly not fine. What is it, diarrhoea? Vomitting?'
'Rey, it's just an upset stomach! Do you want details of my bowel movements? If that's what it takes to get you to talk-'
'I have to shower,' I interrupted, shoving past him on my way to our bedroom.
'Rey, we have to talk, will you please just hear me out?'
'I'll be out in ten minutes, then I'll listen all you want,' I said patiently, picking up my comfortable pyjamas and a towel, before facing him.
Hassan tossed me an exasperated look, then sat down resolutely on the bed and crossed his arms. 'I'll wait.'
I was rummaging in the extra toiletries drawer, because my shampoo had run out, when he mentioned, 'By the way, your mother called. First on your cell, then on the landline. I had to make an excuse so she wouldn't realise I didn't know where you were. Next time you pull a disappearing act, at least take your damn phone.'
'I'll call her back tomorrow. And there won't be a next time,' I clarified.
'Rey, you know I never go anywhere without telling you. You shouldn't have left like that, it's just not done. I was worried.' Hassan said, in a visibly calmer tone.
The fact that he'd said it twice, that he'd been worried, made me realize he was right. He was trying to be sensible and not letting our argument spill over into another area. I understood, we didn't need to pile any more accusations on each other.
'I know, I'm sorry. I just needed some time to think,' I said quietly. He accepted the apology with a nod.
'Take some Motilium, for your nausea... it's in my side table drawer,' I called out just before shutting the bathroom door.
If anything, I felt even more drained after showering and changing into clean pyjamas. Hassan's reaction when he saw me was slightly amusing, after what he was used to, my baggy fleece pyjama bottoms and old hoodie were clearly not up to par.
He was still sitting on the bed, though he had shifted so that he was now leaning against the headboard. He raised his eyebrows in question, but I didn't immediately sit down to hash it all out. Despite having given myself sufficient time to decide what to say, I still needed a few moments to figure out how to stop our talk from becoming another one of our arguments.
I picked up stray towels, shawls and the odd sweater or two, cast around the room. I could tell Hassan was itching to speak up, particularly when I lined up the shoes spilling out of the closet neatly. To his credit, he remained silent even when I left the room for a few minutes.
'Bas, ek minute, acha?'
I came back from the kitchen, carrying a steaming mug of green tea which I placed on the side table nearest to him.
'I didn't ask for any tea,' he grumbled.
'No, but it's good for you. It's got elaichi in it,' I said firmly, as I went over to the heater and switched the pilot on. 'It's cold in here, you could have at least put the heater on.'
The heater burst into life in seconds, blue flames giving way to an orange glow. I turned around, slightly startled to find Hassan was glaring at me.
'I hate it when you act like this. It pisses me off. Pretending nothing bothers you. Talking about little things, like stupid chai and not switching on the heater,' he muttered furiously.
I walked over, grabbed a jar of body butter off the side table and sat down on the foot end of the bed facing him. 'You're pissed off at me? After what you did?'
'But you forgave me, or did you forget?' he said sarcastically.
I slowly unscrewed the lid. 'Hassan. Don't.'
I looked up at him. 'Don't try to twist my words around. There's no place for sarcasm in this. Please.' I quickly turned my attention back to the jar and scraped off a glob of the body butter into my hands, as I said pleadingly, 'For once, can we just talk like rational adults?'
I rubbed my hands together, waiting. When he next spoke, there was no trace of harshness left in his voice. 'I'm sorry, Rey, You have no idea how sorry I am.'
'I know you are. And yet you still won't admit it.' I said quietly, drawing my legs up and resting my arms on my knees. 'I'm your wife.'
He had picked up the mug, but paused before taking a sip at my statement. 'I know you are, yaar! You think I'd forget something like that?'
'Well, you still can't bring yourself to be honest with me. I'm your wife, I do have rights over you. Same as you have over me. And I was your fiancée, and later legally your wife, all the while you were still with Amber.'
That knocked all the fight out of him. 'What?! You knew?'
'I didn't. Not until a month before our original wedding. Do you have any idea how that felt? That you didn't care enough to commit to me, and you didn't even break up with your girlfriend? And then you just kept lying to me!'
I could see he was at a loss for words, so I kept talking. 'I want you to tell me what was going on in your head. Because I have made myself believe too many lies where you were concerned and for once I want to know what was real. I thought we were over this. That I was over this. We aren't over this because you still can't tell me about it yourself. Because I thought you finally felt something for me, you made it pretty damn obvious you did recently.'
'Of course I do-'
'There was no 'of course' about it before, Hassan. I'm right, aren't I?. I met you and I thought, here's the answer to my problems. I was such an idiot, I've always been a complete fool over you. The funny thing is...I don't normally do that, develop such strong feelings for someone in such a short amount of time. Ask my friends, they all thought I was too career-oriented to even think about guys or marriage. Maybe that was the problem, I had plenty of friends who were guys but they knew me as this studious, clumsy, loud Pathan girl. They didn't use pick-up lines on me, or flirt with me or make me feel like I was the only girl in the entire world.
And then you came along. You with your stupid flirting and charm, and I thought I was the only one you talked to that way. But it's just the way you are, isn't it? It never meant anything. It was my fault for misconstruing everything.' I had not broken off eye contact with Hassan since I began talking; I needed to see every nuance of reaction, every flicker of change in his expression. This had been a long time coming, and we both understood we needed to put the old matters aside before we could move ahead.
Hassan sat up straighter. 'No, it was my fault. I shouldn't have...'
'Please, let me finish.' He gestured 'go on', I took a deep breath and continued, 'I don't believe in love at first sight. But I always thought we... connected. At the time of your brother's wedding. I guess it was all one-sided. But it wasn't just your looks or your charm, but a lot of other things too. Like how freely I could talk to you, you felt more like a part of me than a stranger I'd only just met. And of course, and this is going to sound silly but ...no one else had made me feel like I was special to them. Which is ironic because of course you were already in a relationship then, only I didn't know. Why did you have to mess with my head, Hassan? I want to know if you ever felt anything for me then?'
He hesitated, so I urged, 'Be honest. No more lies.'
'Rey...why does it matter if I felt anything then? What matters is how I feel about you now.'
'I know, and I'm asking because I'm secure in your feelings now. I can take it, Hassan. And I want to know.' I suspected what his answer would be before he spoke, if it had been in the affirmative, he wouldn't have said it didn't matter.
'You know already, don't you? You really want me to say it and then have that tainting our beginning?'
'Is it really a 'beginning' though? I'm starting to believe our relationship actually started in Spain,' I said wistfully.
He set the mug down on the side table. 'Please don't hate me for what I'm about to say.' He sighed. 'You're right. I didn't consider you as anything more than my cousin's best friend. And I treated you the same way I did Sara, except maybe because you weren't related to me, I flirted more than usual. I liked our discussions and how you always spoke your mind, but I could think that... platonically. Yes, I thought you were interesting but I didn't think beyond that.'
'Because of her?' After convincing him I could be mature about this, now I had a horrible feeling I couldn't handle hearing him say what I already knew.
'Amber, yes. We'd only been going out for a short while, and well, you know...'
'See, that's the thing, Hassan. I don't know.' I knew I was being relentless, but if we didn't get everything out into the open, it would continue to haunt our marriage.
'I was with somebody else. And we both thought it might lead somewhere. But it was too early to tell. I think I had misgivings about her early on, but I wasn't looking for anything serious then and neither was she.'
'Reyna, don't look at me like that. This is why I didn't want to say it-'
I averted my gaze, because I couldn't get my expression under control. Slowly, I went over to put the body butter on my side table, switched the heater and the lamp off and sat down on the bed again.
I lay down, turning my back to him. For a few moments, quiet reigned. All I could hear was the sound of my own harsh breathing.
I felt Hassan move behind me, reaching out to put a hand on my shoulder. I could smell the cardamom on his breath, as he spoke, 'You wanted me to be honest...I've wronged you I know, I'm trying to make up for it. But you have to let me.'
I turned away from him, and pulled the blanket up over myself. 'Can't you see I'm trying?'
He shifted away then, to the other side of the bed. Synchronised enough to know when words would suffice and touches would not be welcome.
I woke up in the middle of the night and reached out towards Hassan. I thought I'd heard running footsteps and a door closing. It could have been hours ago or mere minutes. I was too sleepy to make out the digits on the clock. The bed beside me was empty, covers thrown back. That succeeded in driving the last vestiges of sleep away. Worried, I sat up, and looked towards the bathroom door. The light wasn't on, but the bedroom door was ajar. I walked out into the corridor barefoot, calling out his name. There were muffled noises coming from the guestroom, but it was dark, lit only by a wedge of light from the bathroom.
I heard him groaning and knocked on the door. 'Hassan? Are you alright?'
There was a pause before I heard him reply, in a barely audible voice, 'Yeah.'
'Just felt like shit, and ended up throwing up.'
'I'm coming in,' I gave him a second's warning before opening the door.
'No, don't. It's disgusting in-' Staggering to his feet, he trailed off as he saw me already inside.
'I've seen worse,' I said, going to him.
I slid my arms around him, hands reaching out to the nape of his neck. He didn't respond for half a minute. Finally, I felt his body relax as he leaned down, resting his head on my shoulder. 'Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you…'
'Will you stop it?' I muttered, taking in the mess.
He saw me looking at the pool of vomit, disengaged my arms from around him and pushed the flush button with an apologetic grimace.
'At least I managed to make it to the toilet in time…'
'It's okay, don't worry about it. Why don't you go back to bed, I'll clean up here?'
I brandished the Wiper in the direction of the door. 'Yes, now go!'
'Thanks Rey, I'll just go shower in our bathroom then.'
It didn't take me long, once I was satisfied the bathroom was spotless, I washed my hands and went back to our room. I heard the shower running, as I crawled back under the blanket. I was sitting up in bed, waiting, when Hassan emerged a few minutes later. Hair glistening wet and only a towel tucked around his hips, his face somewhat pale but otherwise even when sick he looked positively decadent. Reflexively, I made a little sound of approval.
Hassan looked at me askance. 'Really, you have no right looking so good when you're sick,' I said playfully.
I heard him chuckle as he walked over to the chest of drawers. 'Thought that scene in the bathroom might have been a big turn off,' he teased back, taking out a clean pair of sweat pants.
'As if anything about you is a turn off…' Right on cue, he flung the towel away. My breath hitched at the sight, but he pulled on the sweat pants before I could ogle his butt to my heart's content.
He made his way over to the bed, as I cleared my throat and tried to turn my thoughts away from my husband's perfect backside. 'Er…How do you feel now?'
'Somewhat better than shitty,' he said.
I patted the bed beside me. 'Aww, my poor baby, come here.' This time Hassan didn't hesitate to accept the comfort I was offering. I had hated sleeping away from him earlier; even though we had been in the same bed, we had been separated by miles instead of scant inches. He moved into my open arms, burrowing his face in my neck.
I ran my hand along the back of his head. 'Mmm, you smell good.' Of mint mouthwash and soap.
His voice was drowsy. 'I didn't think you'd let me back into bed in that haalat.'
I slipped my other hand across his waist to rest on his bare back. 'Oh shush, that's not true.'
'Really? Where did my 'Eww, germs!' Reyna go?'
'You should get some sleep, Mister. Where did all this energy come from?'
He waggled his eyebrows. 'Well, with you looking at my butt like that, I think I can muster up enough energy for almost anything.'
'I would have much rather appreciated you completely naked, but I can make do with shirtless.'
I felt him smile as he trailed butterfly-soft kisses across my jaw line. 'Don't tempt me, Rey.'
'Hassan!' I laughed; glad he was feeling better, though I could tell he was tired, and trying not to show it.
'Okay, okay, I'll stop. But I'm not happy about it.' He let go, and then took a while finding a comfortable position, tickling me until he settled down with his head on my stomach, throwing an arm across my waist.
I stroked his hair, droplets of water clinging to my hand, and we were quiet for a few minutes. His eyes drifted closed but I could tell by his breathing he was still awake.
'Did you take the medicine?'
'Yeah, what the hell was in it? It's made me seriously lethargic.'
'As long as you feel better, a little sedation is bearable.' I was trying not to alarm him, because he was right. The drug was commonly used in difficult patients who had been given Spinal Anesthesia and had subsequent nausea, and they usually went out like a light afterwards.
'A little? I doubt I could move if I wanted to. Not that I want to, this is really comfortable…'
'Then, don't. Just go to sleep. We'll …ah, talk in the morning.'
He fell silent again. His breathing evened out. I continued stroking his hair, thinking there was no place I'd rather be than lying here with Hassan.
His eyes flickered open. 'Rey?'
'I'm sorry I made you cry.' I hadn't realized he'd noticed my condition earlier, since he had just woken up and I had rushed to the bathroom after a flurry of angry words.
I leaned down, pulled the blanket up so it was covering both of us and brushed a light kiss on his cheek. 'Go to sleep.'
I knew the exact second Hassan woke up the next morning. We had spent the entire night entwined, his weight against my side lifted as he tried to sit up.
He tried to loosen my hold on him, chuckling, 'Rey? Let go.'
I'd been clutching him like a lifeline, I dropped my hands and squinted up at him. 'You okay?'
He stretched. 'Yeah, don't get up, I'll wake you when breakfast is ready.'
I closed my eyes and snuggled under the blanket, though sleep eluded my grasp. I heard Hassan moving around and then leave the room. I lay there for a few minutes longer, reflecting on the things left unsaid.
Realising it was pointless trying since I couldn't sleep anyway, I got up and took a long shower.
Hassan was sitting at the kitchen table when I walked in, brooding over a cup of coffee. Normally we made breakfast together on Sundays or went over to his parents' house. Today, there were already fluffy omelets, aloo anda and toast set out on plates.
He was lost in thoughts and hadn't noticed me, until I leaned in to put an arm his shoulders and gave him a quick good morning peck. His head jerked around at my touch, but his hand reached out to hold mine over his shoulder. 'How are you feeling now?'
'Much better, I guess got it out of my system,' he said with a small smile. 'Here, sit…'
I sat on the chair beside him, he poured me a cup of coffee and I picked up a plate. He'd clearly waited for me so we could eat together, because he forked over the second omelet onto his plate.
We were almost done eating when he spoke, 'Rey, Ami called…'
'She wanted to know if we were coming over, some family friends are visiting from England so they were having a big elaborate brunch. I said I wasn't feeling well to get out of it, because I think we need to be alone today.'
I nodded, swallowing a piece of toast and washing it down with coffee. Here it comes…the remainder of our argument.
He went on with a slight smile, 'She started to worry, so I told her I had my own personal doctor, and you were amazing at taking care of me.'
I shrugged. 'I didn't really do anything.'
'Well, regardless, I do appreciate it. I know you were upset yesterday and you probably didn't want to-'
At that, unexpectedly, my eyes welled up. I averted my gaze and stared at my slightly burnt toast. 'Hassan, I have plenty of faults, but even I'm not that petty.'
'You're right, I didn't mean to-'
'It's fine, forgotten already.' Couldn't he see I had barely patched the broken pieces of myself up, only for him to push at the cracks so soon?
His voice laced with cynicism, he said, 'Is it? Like everything else, you'll forgive and forget so easily?'
I shot him an irritated look. 'It wasn't a big deal, I like taking care of you, I didn't think I'd be the type of girl to pander to any man, but it's different with you. If I do something for you, it's because I want to.'
I had lost my appetite and pushed my plate away. 'Why am I explaining myself to you? You want me to feel bad for being nice to you? Isn't there a bigger issue at stake here?'
Hassan put his mug down, leaned in, and cupped my face in one hand so I was forced to look at him. I was trying to get myself under control but I was still teary-eyed. 'Reyna…'
'Oh God, I can't seem to do anything right where you are concerned. I don't want to cause you anymore grief, and I seriously don't want to be the reason for your tears. I barely finished apologizing for last night hours ago and here I am again, making you cry.'
I swiped at my eyes. 'I don't know, I just can't seem to stop.'
His hand dropped to cover mine, clenching unclenching relentlessly. 'I know now Amber is nothing, she means nothing to me.'
'It was you who brought her into our lives, into our relationship-' I broke off. 'Or was it the other way round? She had you first, and I was the interloper. How could you let it go on until after our nikkah? That wasn't fair to me or her. If you wanted her so badly, you should have broken it off with me!'
'I know, I know I've been a complete ass to you.'
When I didn't immediately say otherwise, he said, 'For the record, I broke up with Amber before our nikkah, she made a nuisance of herself so I had to go back right after, convince her to stop being difficult and accept it.'
'I want to know if this is going to be a habit, because I'm not sure if you can be faithful now. I tried to understand the Amber issue, but damnit Hassan you can't just date other women when you're married to me! That's the reaction you wanted from me earlier, right? You didn't want my forgiveness and I'm too tired now to muster any. Even if I have no right to be angry, because I was asking for a divorce, even then, you knew why I wanted to end our relationship. Because I thought it was what you wanted. How was I to know you'd suddenly changed your mind?'
'Didn't I show you? In Spain? Hell, even before that...'
'So just because you started paying attention to your fiancée after a year, I'm supposed to understand you've broken up with your girlfriend and I should be fine with that?'
Hassan was at a loss for words. This discussion was a long time coming but neither of us could have guessed how ugly it would be in reality. 'And fine, let's assume I was okay with that, and with you dating girls after our nikkah, because in my mind it was over. What about you? How were you okay with any of that? You said yourself after our nikkah, we were married forever. Divorce was not an option to you, whatever you made me think. So I think I'm justified in asking then, Hassan, how do you expect me to trust you after that?'
'Rey, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have implied it was serious with any of them. Or that anything happened. I meant Amber, we were...what I felt guilty about yesterday was what I did with Amber. But afterwards when you left, it was only when I was wallowing in despair, I thought I'd lost you for good because there were times I lost all hope of convincing you, of getting you back. I tried to get back on the dating scene, the first time wasn't intentional, I was at a club with the guys and met this girl...anyway, I swear I didn't do anything except talk to her. Mostly about you. It ended with her giving me advice on how to get you back. The next two times, were utter disasters. I tried but I just couldn't get over you.'
'That does wonders for my self-esteem. You've already shattered it beyond salvage. '
He stretched an arm across the back of my chair and leaned in even closer, until our foreheads were touching. 'I swear it's you, only you. Please, Rey, you have to believe me. If you want me to beg or grovel-'
'There's no need to demean yourself, I don't want you to beg. I told you last night, I forgive you, and I meant it. If I'm hurt, it's because as much as I'd like to, I can't just get over this instantly, you have to give me time to trust you. I believe you, I do. I just-'
'I mean it, Rey. I will never give you a reason to doubt me again. You want time, I get that, and we have the rest of our lives together, don't we?' Hassan with such a vulnerable expression on his face, seeking confirmation, how could I ever say no to him?
'Yes, of course.' I nodded fervently. 'You know, if we had gotten married the first time around, I couldn't have been mature about this. I needed to grow as a person, and I think you needed time to yourself.'
'And we wouldn't have had Spain.'
Despite my current mood, the mention of Spain made me smile wistfully. One of my favourite memories was Hassan, in a typical, overly dramatic move, chasing me to Madrid and contriving a chance meeting in the street.
He took my smile as a sign of encouragement. 'I didn't know you had just found about Amber, and that's why you were so mad. And I don't blame you. I might have left it too late, but once I knew I couldn't marry anyone except you…those few days in Spain, meant more to me than my entire relationship with Amber. You're absolutely justified in what you thought you had to do. But Rey, I know we could have been happy even if we'd married then. I think you needed our year apart, you weren't ready… and I can't blame you because it took me longer to become ready. I guess last year was a fitting penance for the way I treated you.'
'I know I hurt you too, and I didn't make our relationship easy either.'
'I don't deserve you,' he said.
'Don't say that! I have enough flaws of my own, and I've caused my fair share of problems.'
He started to shake his head, as I said, 'Hassan, we fell for each other at the wrong time. You didn't want me at first, so I let you go, and then...'
'Then I came to my senses and realised I wanted to be with you,' he said softly.
I sighed. 'You and I, we've been out of sync this entire time. The wrong time, the wrong person, the wrong feelings. Just wrong.'
'Maybe, but not wrong, not anymore,' he said, his tone daring me to contradict him.
'Yeah, not anymore,' I said, then in an attempt to lighten the mood, 'I swear though, Hassan, if you so much as think of flirting again-'
'Never!' he avowed. 'Well, I saved up all my best lines for you anyway.'
'If those were the best you could do, I'm surprised you had any girlfriends at all.'
'Hey, there weren't that many!'
Something occurred to me. 'You said nothing happened with those other girls, then why the sudden confession yesterday, Hassan?'
'I felt so damn guilty, all the time. I kept thinking how happy we were now, and I didn't want to ruin that, but I also couldn't be dishonest any longer. We needed a clean start, and it couldn't be based on lies or secrets.' He shot me a rueful look and took a deep breath. 'And also, I couldn't help wondering if it had been you instead, if you'd been dating other guys… I don't know how I would have reacted. I would probably have been jealous as hell. And I've never been like that, it's usually been harmless flirtation and it doesn't mean anything. I'm not the possessive sort, except apparently when it comes to you. And it made feel like an utter hypocrite. That I was glad you couldn't be with someone and then doing the opposite myself, out of anger or hurt, whatever, it was still unfair to have double standards. If it was you, I'd have wanted to know. If there was someone else, I'd have wanted to know.'
'Oh, Hassan, you know very well there has never been anyone else.' I said.
He leaned forward again, and held my face in his hands. 'I can't say the same, not with my past. But I hope you know, I can say for certain there won't be anyone else for me either. I should have known two years ago, I'm sorry it took me so long to recognize what I had in you.'
'I believe you now…about saving all your best lines,' I smiled into his eyes. 'If you keep saying things like that-'
'At least it made you stop crying,' he said, with a smug grin.
He was right, the lump in my throat has dissolved and I no longer felt as if I would start weeping any second.
I winded my arms around his neck. 'You were wrong about one thing, I don't deserve you.'
'Maybe we should just agree that with all our faults combined, we deserve each other?'
'Fine by me.' I wasn't about to argue on that point. I doubt I could anyway, because he was kissing me and I wasn't capable of forming a coherent thought for several minutes. When we drew apart, he had trouble catching his breath.
'Want to take this somewhere more comfortable and without all these clothes?' he said, in a low throaty voice.
'Do you even need to ask?' I teased.
Our mad rush towards the bedroom was interrupted by the phone ringing in the living room.
I pulled on his hand, amidst a fit of giggles. 'Stop it! It could be important.'
It was the landline and only family called on that. I was nearer so I checked the Caller ID on the cordless and held up the phone to him. 'It's your mother.'
He looked at me, aghast. 'Oh, way to kill the mood, Rey! You should have just ignored it.'
I pressed the 'talk' button, because he didn't appear to be in a hurry to answer it himself.
A few minutes later, after placating Auntie Lena that Hassan was fine, I put the phone back. 'We have been summoned to your parent's for lunch, because of the guests. Apparently they wanted to come over here-' I told a sulking Hassan.
'They can't come here! Uff, I told Ami in the morning-'
'No, no, we'll go. Later.' I reassured him.
'Then there's no time to waste, now where were we?' The glint in his eyes was back. He made a grab for me, I danced out of his reach and towards our room, laughing.
An hour and a half later, after I finished ironing our clothes while Hassan cleaned up in the kitchen, I hung the clothes up and decided getting ready could wait. I took my phone with me to the living room and called my mother first. We spoke for a few minutes, she was worried about my grandfather's declining health, I stuck to Hassan's excuse for my absence last night and told her I'd try to visit soon, before hanging up. I sat down in the middle of the couch and dialed the second call before I lost my nerve. Hassan had left the TV on and I tried to locate the remote as the call went through.
It rang for a long time, until finally a very familiar voice answered, 'Reyna!'
'Yeah, it's me. How've you been?' I said, anxious about her reaction. It had been entirely too long, and I wasn't sure what to expect.
I shouldn't have worried though. Sara was babbling on excitedly, 'Rey! It's been forever! How are you? How's married life? That annoying cousin of mine had better be treating you well! I have so much to tell you, but you first, I need to know you're happy. I promise I won't complain even if you get all mushy about Hassan.'
I laughed. 'Shit, yaar, I've seriously missed you!'
Hassan walked in from the kitchen, as she said, 'I've missed you too. Tell me na, are you guys okay? Are you happy? He never tells me anything, I've been bugging him about you for ages. He'd better be making you happy, else I'm going have to come there and beat him up for you.'
'Ah, there's no need for that. Here, speak to him yourself.'
He looked at me in question, I mouthed 'it's Sara' as he took the phone from me. He barely got a word in before Sara interrupted him. Finally he said, 'Good lord, you talk a lot! Aisa kuch nahin hai, ask Rey, we barely have time to leave the bedroom, toh tumhain kab time daiti?' he was smirking at me, so I grabbed the phone back before he said something more inappropriate.
'Shut up, Hassan,' I said, but he didn't take me seriously, and still laughing, sat down beside me. then turned my attention back to Sara. 'I'm sorry for that-'
'Ewww, gross! Too much information! Control your husband, Rey!'
Hassan was still chuckling, Sara's voice was loud enough for him to hear. I'd scooted closer to him, and cuddled up against him as he watched the TV. She continued in the same vein for a while, until I managed to calm her down.
'And yes I am, by the way.'
'I'm happy. Hassan makes me happy.' I saw him smile at that, but he knew how much talking to Sara meant to be and pretended to be engrossed in the highlights of this week's cricket match.
'Well, yes apparently he does, I got that much,' she said slyly.
'I just called because I really needed to talk to you-'
'What's wrong?' she asked immediately. I should have known, we'd been friends for too long, and she had never been one to hold grudges.
'No, don't worry. I'm okay now, I just …some things were happening and I really wished you were here, and I realized how utterly miserable I am without my best friend and what a horrible friend I've been to you lately.'
'Reyna, stop it. You know we've known each other too long, you know you can call me anytime, even if we haven't spoken in ages. I'm always here for you, kha?'
'Aw hun, you know same goes. I just really wanted to talk to you yesterday. And I'm sorry, it's my fault we haven't spoken in so long. We have to go to your aunt and uncle's place in a bit, but I just wanted to ask if you'd be free later, so we can catch up properly?'
'Of course, I'm always free for you.'
'What, no match today? No Carlos?'
'Oh Rey,' she sighed.
This time it was my turn to ask, 'What's wrong?'
She sighed again, 'No, no work today. And no Carlos either. I think you need to talk some sense into me. Call me later, okay?'
'I will, we'll talk properly then.' I knew instinctively something was wrong.
'Alrighty, bye… speak soon.'
I hung up, and frowned at the phone. Hassan raised an eyebrow, 'What's got you looking so worried?'
'I'm such a shitty friend.'
He put his arm around me. 'Well, I'm sure she'll tell you what's wrong later.'
I was still mulling over that, when he reminded me it was getting late.
I got up from the couch and was halfway out the room, when I realized he wasn't following me. 'Hassan, you need to get ready too,' I chided.
'It'll take me less than five minutes,' he reminded me.
I rolled my eyes, and went to our room.
Once we were both ready, me in somewhat fancier clothes that I would have preferred to placate the in-laws expecting a newly wed to all dressed up and Hassan in simple khaddar shalwar kameez, we walked out of the apartment together.
It was only when we reached the car that I remembered. The scratches hadn't been that prominent last night, now were glaringly obvious. Hassan came to a halt.
He ran his hands over the three (apparently I'd missed one in the dark) scratches in dismay. 'Oh God, what did you do to my baby?'
'Um…in my defense, it wasn't deliberate-'I began.
'Oh, Rey…' He was shaking his head in disappointment.
I cringed. 'I'll completely understand if you never let me drive it again.'
'We'll need to get you your own car so you stop messing up mine,' he said, unlocking the doors with the control. He held the passenger side door open for me, and I was surprised to see the smile on his face. 'I suppose I deserved it though.'
'Well, like I said, it wasn't deliberate.' I slid in. He was still standing there looking down at me, waiting, knowing what I would say judging by his widening grin, and I couldn't resist teasing, 'Yeah okay, you did, a little.'
He laughed as he shut the door, rounded the car and got in the driver's seat. As we were pulling out of the parking lot onto the main road, he glanced at me, 'You know, I'd pick you over the car any day, Rey.'
The car getting scratched seemed trivial in comparison to the problems we'd had to struggle through. Nevertheless, I'd better get his car fixed before he began grumbling. If it was one thing Hassan was possessive about, it was his car. He'd lamented the loss of his other car after the accident, with many details, countless times.
I smiled and said lightly, 'Phew, that's a relief. I wasn't sure.'
'Never doubt it,' he said seriously, touching my hand briefly.
'Whoa, you have to let me recover from all these lines, too much of a good thing, all at once,' I said lightly.
He started laughing. 'Rey, I do believe I'm done with the business of pick up lines.'
'Oh, and what was that just now? And earlier?'
'I prefer to call them my keep-the-missus-happy lines,' he deadpanned.
I burst out laughing. He continued in the same vein all the way to his parents' house, much to my amusement. We were still grinning as Shay crossed the front lawn to greet us. 'What's so funny?'
I gave him a quick hug, I could see the rest of the family and guests were gathered around the patio and food was already set out, as Hassan said, 'None of your business, bro. Aapas ka maamla hai, samjha kar.'
I smacked his arm, 'Hassan!'
He grinned, 'Was that supposed to hurt?'
His brother looked on, his lips twitching. 'Oh, ignore him, Shay. He's just being silly.' I linked my arms through theirs and walked over to meet everyone with my handsome escorts, feeling lighter than I had in a long time.
A/N: A long chapter to make up for the wait! More than two years this time, ah Im sorry! Final Year was a nightmare and then had a really busy year of House Job, I barely got time to sleep much less write. I doubt anyone is still reading this, but I still get hits on this, so putting this up for all the old (and hopefully some new ones too) readers who stuck with this. Obviously most of the conflict has been resolved, but there's still at least a chapter or two left to tie up some loose ends. It'll probably turn into more though...
Thank you to anyone who is still reading!
Yaar- Urdu slang, for friend/mate
'Toh mai kya karun?' –So, what should I do ?
'Please, na! Paisay nahin hain!-I don't have any money
'Ugh, acha, chalo magar jaldi wapas ana!' –Ugh, okay fine, let's go, but come back ASAP.
'Manny, tang na kar yaar'-Manny, don't tease, mate.
Fikar not- Worry not.
Chai and gupshup- Tea and talk
Chotti Eid- literally the 'Small Eid', Eid ul Fitr.
InshaALLAH- God Willing.
Bhabhi- Brother or friend's wife.
'Reyna,mai tumharay liyay taaray tor kar le aoon ga'- I will get you the moon and the stars for you.
'Bas, ek minute, acha?'- Just a minute, ok?
Aloo anda- Potato and eggs